'Chocolat' by Joanne Harris

Having Chocolat as the first joint-reader for our book meetings was the perfect excuse for me to read it again. It’s been one of my favourite novels since it was first published in 1999 and I picked up a proof copy of it when I worked in a bookshop in Portsmouth.

There are several reasons I keep coming back to this book. For a start, it’s beautifully written. The words flow on the page, the language fluid, the dialogue smooth as lovingly tempered chocolate. There are descriptions of sweets and chocolates all handmade in a shop called La Céleste Praline, a place that draws in the villagers of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes like iron filings to a magnet. Because everyone likes chocolate, and Vianne Rocher’s shop is the perfect place to air grievances, talk about life and love, become yourself.

Vianne is one of those people every town and village should have - insightful, charming, popular, persuasive, all-seeing. She’s referred to by the local priest, Francis Reynaud (renard is French for ‘fox’, though I don’t know whether the similarity was a deliberate plot device) as a witch and a slattern. Quite unfair from my point of view and from the point of view of those villagers who have a little of the rebel in them. A woman finds courage thanks to Vianne. An old woman connects with her because she can ‘see’ too. Vianne’s daughter Anouk asks ‘awkward’ pagan questions about Easter at school, ‘upsetting’ the teacher and the other children in this pious little village of 200 residents.

For me as a writer, this book has a lot to teach as regards voice, character, plotting, fluidity of writing. As a reader, it always teaches me something about myself. It’s about magic, but magic of a natural kind: the magic of being truly human, the magic of beauty and nature, the magic of friendship and love and compassion. These things are magical because they’re not generally seen as magical. They’re taken for granted, when nothing should be taken for granted in this world of ours.

The ending is emotional and moving, based on acceptance of people’s wishes, respect of the individual, and reverence for those who have seen more of life than you and know what they want. And what they don’t.

This will always remain one of my favourite books, and it’s one of only a few that I will read again and again. And it will be as magical next time as it always is.